The long (but not winding) road

“Stones and stories” was the promise of archaeologist and BRLSI member Simon Tyler (above) as he began Fosse Way and Myth, his talk on the Roman road that runs arrow-straight (most of the time) from north-east to south-west England, passing through Aquae Sulis (Bath) en route. Exactly where from and to, and how directly through modern Bath, turned out to be just some of the questions to which there have been many answers over the years, and Simon, who has made a detailed study (and a number of excavations) of the road, came armed with his pick of the best and most likely.

The first area of uncertainty turned out to be the meaning of the name “Fosse”, which conventional wisdom says is derived from the Latin for “ditch” but which can, in turns out, also mean “bank” or “raised”. The ditch idea fitted well with R.G Collingwood’s 1924 theory that the Fosse Way was a defensive barrier to protect the conquered (southern and eastern) parts of Britannia from the bits the Romans hadn’t yet reached, but this was succinctly countered by (among others) Helen O’Neill in 1953, who pointed out that the Romans didn’t build stone roads in battle zones. Simon concurred, showing evidence that the Fosse, although certainly built by the Roman army, was done in no particular hurry and in meticulous accordance with the Roman textbook of road construction.
As for Bath, aerial photography shows strong evidence that the Fosse Way ran straight through the Royal Crescent – except, of course, that there was no Royal Crescent in Roman times, and the place where it was eventually built was well outside the Roman city walls. This makes the Fosse Bath’s first bypass, a feat which has never been satisfactorily repeated in nearly 2,000 years of transport planning.

Simon presented a wealth of further detail, much of it centering on Clandown and Woden’s Dyke near Bath (the latter better known today as Wansdyke), but also including such gems as a rare section of original Roman road in LIncoln, complete with strangely evocative wheel-ruts. His overall view? The Fosse Way was never a defensive ditch or a frontier, it’s certainly Roman (not later British, as some have suggested), and it was built in stages, connecting Lincoln and Exeter at one point, but possibly not at others. Whenever, wherever and however it was done, it was certainly an astonishing feat of engineering.

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